As Drop-off Looms, a Professor’s Note for New College Parents

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This article originally appeared in The Washington Post. Chris Alexander is professor of political science, associate dean for international programs and McGee Director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program at Davidson College. We hope all Wildcat Parents enjoy reading his message.

I remember the day I stopped being a crabby professor about parents at orientation: Aug. 20, 2004. I was walking home just before noon. In the near distance, I heard the burble of families gathering for a final lunch on the campus lawn before parents headed home. I swung wide of the crowd, mumbling the same flinty tough love as many faculty members: “They’re big people now. Go home!”

Then I saw them — a father and daughter, walking shoulder-to-shoulder 20 yards ahead. As they walked slowly, he reached across the small of her back, then he quickly pulled back his arm. Another couple of steps and he reached out again. He held her waist for the briefest moment before he pulled back his arm and pushed his hands into his pockets.

I never drew near enough to hear a word, but what I saw in 60 seconds told me that this man’s heart was breaking. He had only a few precious minutes with his daughter, and he was struggling to figure out how to be in those minutes.

Many new college parents struggle with this dilemma: What am I supposed to be to my child now, and how am I supposed to be it?

As an educator for 30 years, I can tell you that while you might think that your influence in your child’s life has fallen to a new low, it hasn’t. Your influence can be just as powerful over the next four years as it was in the last four — maybe more so.

As high school students, they thought they knew it all. College is different territory. Traversing it raises new and fundamental questions about what it means to be an adult, about what they believe and what they will do with their lives.

We want our children to have options. We want them to choose their paths rather than become victims of circumstance or other people’s choices. We know that their capacities to think rigorously, communicate effectively and act as ethical human beings will dramatically expand the range of opportunities available to them.

But the freedom we want for them requires more. College teaches many things well. The ability to rise above the fray and take the long view is not always chief among them. Students often begin college with a sincere appreciation of its big-picture significance, but they quickly develop severe cases of tunnel vision. They fixate on what they have to do today, this week or this month. The end of the semester is about as far into the future as they can look.

Parents can be the sage voices outside the tunnel that help their children maintain balance and perspective: This is supposed to be harder than high school. A “C” in Econ 101 will not destroy your career. Get involved in your campus community, but beware of overextension.

Parents can help students take advantage of opportunities whose long-term value might not be apparent today: A semester or year abroad is worth more in the long run than one more semester of fun on campus. A history, philosophy or literature class teaches young entrepreneurs, engineers and policy-makers valuable lessons about the human beings they must understand in order to do their jobs well and ethically.

You can help them maintain balance in their lives: Invest in people, not just school work. Remember that success and happiness in life depend on relationships. College gives most young people their first chance to begin building independent selves that connect to others. Learning to do this well and joyously is more important than any grade they will earn.

And bestowing your perspective from a distance might be the best strategy. Because perspective requires distance. You can’t help your young person see the big picture if you become a character in it. You surrender your vantage point when you climb down into the details of their daily lives.

You can’t remind them that the world will not end when they get a “C” on a paper if you spent hours on the phone helping them write it. You can’t give good advice about managing a conflict with a professor or a roommate if you’ve become part of the drama. You can’t help them make choices that will be wise in the long term if your own vision gets constrained by their short-term view.

If you know that your student might struggle with a specific issue, jot down the name of the person or office that can help if the need arises. You’ll feel better. But resist the temptation to grab the phone or the keyboard every time your student faces a challenge. Be their counselor, not their problem-solver. When you yield to the temptation, you risk giving up the most important gift you can offer — the wisdom of a life lived longer than 18 years, shared from an elevation that allows you to see what they can’t.

Give them this gift. They will look forward to another quiet walk on their first visit home. And you’ll feel confident putting your arm around them because, from a distance, it’s been there all along.

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Chris Alexander

Chris is professor of political science, associate dean for international programs and McGee Director of the Dean Rusk International Studies Program

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